The Value of Talking About Your Work

"Many people liberated from the commute have experienced a void they can't quite name."--from The Atlantic article "Admit It, You Miss Your Commute" (Photo credit: Shutterstock/Eduard Moldoveanu)

People like to talk about their work, whether they love or hate their work. One of the values of chronicling your corporate history or oral history program is that it gets those conversations going—not just about current work, but about career arcs and the value of work itself. To that end, there’s some fascinating research cited in an article by Jerry Useem called “Admit It, You Miss Your Commute” (The Atlantic magazine, July/August 2021, available online to subscribers only). One example: “In a 2017 experiment, a team at Microsoft installed a program called SwitchBot on commuters’ phones. Before the start and end of each workday, the bot would pose simple questions. A morning session helped the participants transition into productive work mode, while prompts to detach at day’s end—’How did you feel about work today? Is there anything else you would like to share?’—brought forth something unexpected. ‘People apparently would just spill out their day,’ Shamsi Iqbal, a researcher who helped design the study, told me. In reliving their day, they ‘relieved themselves’ of it (and sent fewer after-hours emails as a result). Why was this a good thing? Because the ability to detach from a job, Iqbal explained, is part of what makes a good worker. New research shows that it’s crucial to facilitating mental rejuvenation. Without it, burnout rises, effort increases, and productivity ultimately drops.”

As people return to work in person, I’d suggest that the opportunity to think and talk about that job is part of what makes a good worker as well. And it helps to improve jobs, as we’re seeing post-pandemic. Undertaking a corporate history effort supports what educators call meta-cognition, a/k/a seeing the big picture, or thinking about thinking. Useem also cites “The Commuter’s Lament,” a poem posted in the New York City subways by Norman Colp: “Overslept, / so tired. / If late, / get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / do it again.” Useem begs to differ, as do I: “Let’s finally spare a kind word for something we’ve spent our lives abusing—for the highways and the subways, for the crowds and the filth, for the bagelwich and the jostled coffee, for the traffic tie-up and the terrible screech in the tunnel. Two optimistic subway vandals did it 10 years ago. Tired of that underground poem’s eternal griping, they briefly replaced why the pain? with much to gain.”